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Spinning Wheels - no not the song

Though it does show a little of the environment I grew up in - these were the first thing I thought they were singing about the first time I heard that song...

No, I'm talking about the real thing, which are used for making yarn from raw materials such as wool or cotton:

Old Wheel

This one is an antique, made sometime in the later half of the 1800's, and was built by the brother of this man - my great great grandfather:


Jon Vium (my great great grandfather) was well known for his handmade spinning wheels, and he made dozens - if not hundreds - of them that he sold to neighbors and at market.  He was an avid turner, and used a treadle lathe.  He lost his leg when using an adze to flatten some birch - he missed and hit his foot.  This was far out in the sticks, so doctors were several days away at least.  A member of the family was sent to retrieve the nearest doctor, but by the time he was able to get there gangrene had set in.  The amputation took place on the kitchen table, and the sterilizing agent and anesthetic used was whiskey...  There's more, but suffice to say not many can say they have it so tough today.

Even after losing his leg, he continued turning - with the treadle lathe - until his death.  I used the above picture of a whell his brother made because while there may be some of his spinning wheels remaining, I don't know where they are...  There was one that had sat outside for many years, and though it was heavily weathered and missing pieces, dad was able to create a reproduction of the wheels that granddad made using it as a reference along with the wheel pictured above - here's  his version, made in maple:

 Spinning Wheel

Dad was very proud of his recreated spinning wheel.  It's as close a copy as he could come up with given what he had to start with.  Here's a different view:


Spinning wheels are literally spin fibers such as wool (and other materials) into yarn for use in knitting.  I don't think I can remember my grandmother when she wasn't halfway through another knitted quilt - she was prolific.  She made hundreds of them... I still have several myself that she hand knitted - but she usually bought her yarn at the store in the later half of her life... though I remember telling her showing my mother how she would use the spinning wheel when she was younger - it was on a wheel much like these.

 Fibers first need to be "carded", where a pair of "carders (wooden handled planks with a series of metal combs are used to literally comb the fibers straight - here's grandmother's pair, with a "rolag" of wool started next to it:


I won't go too much into the process of spinning yarn, but if you are interested there are other sites more with more experienced information than my own...  including and some videos on YouTube.   Basically, the fiber is combed straight and rolled up into a "rolag" like above, then one end is mounted in the wheel.  Once you start spinning the wheel, it pulls on the fibers as you feed it, and it twists them at the same time, like a rope at the same time spooling them onto a bobbin.   Twisting makes the thread stronger by intertwining the individual fibers into one continuous thread that you can't pull apart without a good amount of effort. 

My uncle was so impressed, that he took dad's wheel and made his own version - his in walnut: 

Alfred's Wheel

These are built as closely as we know to the originals great granddad made, and both of them work - as they have been used.  But - not much, I think... just enough to prove they work.   Most people these days don't knit, much less spin their own yarn anymore - but as with anything, there are still a few out there who are continuing the craft.

Alf's wheel

Most of the parts for each are turned on the lathe...  These wheels were made using a jig and a router, though originally it would also have been turned on the lathe using a face plate and jig.  The string you see around the wheel is the drive belt...  it rides in one of a series of grooves directly above the wheel - each sized differently so different speeds can be used.  The higher the speed, the more twists per inch are produced on the yarn.

 This particular style of wheel is known as a "castle" wheel, which was popular for those who want to travel with the wheel, or have just a small amount of room for it - the latter of which would have been the case for most of my ancestors.  The houses were not large, so if something could be made to take up less space, the better.

These wheels are an exersize in functionality and design - they are beautifully designed wooden machines that are truly an art form.  I've always been drawn to them, as they are the most aproachable tool - they look like some sort of fancy furniture, but were one of the basics of life not so many years ago, when people used them to make their own fabrics, sheets, blankets, and clothing.  There wasn't a Walmart on the corner, and if there was they couldn't have afforded it anyway.  Their only choice was to literelly make their own - well, everything, almost...  One simply has to respect that sort of independence.   There are modern makers who have updated the design to work better and use modern technology (ball bearings!) - but most of the modern incarnations seem soulless to me, lacking that part of them that I see as art.

When I was younger, I always wondered how such a cool song could have been about a spinning wheel...

Blood Sweat, and Tears - Spinning Wheel 

What goes up must come down
spinning wheel got to go round
Talking about your troubles it's a crying sin
Ride a painted pony
Let the spinning wheel spin

You got no money, and you, you got no home
Spinning wheel all alone
Talking about your troubles and you, you never learn
Ride a painted pony
let the spinning wheel turn

Did you find a directing sign
on the straight and narrow highway?
Would you mind a reflecting sign
Just let it shine within your mind
And show you the colors that are real

Someone is waiting just for you
spinning wheel is spinning true
Drop all your troubles, by the river side
Catch a painted pony
On the spinning wheel ride

Someone is waiting just for you
spinning wheel is spinning true
Drop all your troubles, by the river side
Ride a painted pony
Let the spinning wheel fly


Of course - when I read the lyrics, I realize that the song is really about a homeless guy in a Mustang... Wink





Just to let you know, I helped Grandma card and spin wool when I was young, (about a 100 years ago), on the old wheel that she had. I don't know how much help IO was but I had a good time. She would usually at the same time tell me stories of the old country or of the legends and sagas that were so much a part of the Icelandic culture.
Old Bro John


Hey, John!

I think that is the same spinning wheel that's in the other article, the one on deconstructing an original.  Those are her carders above, for sure...

I would love to have heard more of her stories...  she was a wonderful woman.




You might also want to check Stephen Shepherd's site for some of his work on spinning wheels:



The spinning wheels your family crafted- where did they get the string / drive belt? I may buy an old spinning wheel to use but it is missing the drive belt. This spinning wheel looks like the ones you have pictured- a double drive belt in which it is two strings not one use to make it all work together... could you help me?



The string used on these spinning wheels is a simple, heavy duty cotton twine, nothing fancy.  I suspect just about any kind of twine would work, so long as it's not  too slick (texture helps it to grip).




I had an Icelandic Amma that spun and knit - she had settled in North Dakota with her family.  I am a knitter and I spin with a drop spindle.  I just came into a bag of fleece and my mother-in-law (also Icelandic) just informed me that she has her mother's upright Icelandic spinning wheel.  She think's it might be broken, but now I'm desparate to fix it and see if I can use it to spin this wool.  It's such a vital piece of our Icelandic heritage. . . and I thought mainly from the women.  But after reading your article, I realize that it was also the men who built them, and according to my in-laws, also spun occaisionally. 

I wonder if her wheel could have been made by your grandfather.  Would there be certain marks I should look for?

You can e-mail me at r_arnar AT yahoo DOT com.  THANKS for this valuable information!